Liao Yiwu Howls Against the Chinese Government, Offers Memories of Prison

BY NewsHour Poetry Series  July 11, 2013 at 3:41 PM EDT

After the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, poet Liao Yiwu responded in anger and sadness with a powerful poem that become popular among activists. But his verse led to his imprisonment. Jeffrey Brown talks to the poet about his work and time in prison, recounted in his new memoir, “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.”

Read the full transcript here.

Liao Yiwu was in his early 30s when he was arrested for writing and performing a poem about the brutality of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. His poem — simply called “Massacre” — was an angry, howling rant against the government and a plea for support for the fledgling pro-democracy movement.

For his words, Liao served four years in jail, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. Twice he tried to commit suicide. But his life turned around when he met a fellow political prisoner: an 84-year-old monk who showed him that music could be his salvation.

“He told me that you will never have freedom, if you don’t have freedom in your mind. And so he taught me to play the flute,” Liao Yiwu told the PBS NewsHour. A new memoir about his time in prison has just been published by Houghton Mifflin called “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.”
Liao said he felt he had to write the book to make sure the stories were not covered up. “I needed to write it down so I wouldn’t be forgotten like a stray dog,” he said.

Growing up in the Sichuan province during the Cultural Revolution, Liao received little formal education. But he learned traditional Chinese poetry from his father, and found his own way to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He said he was never a political writer or activist, until he saw the events in Tiananmen Square unfold. “It changed my life,” he said. “I felt helpless.”

After writing “Massacre” and surviving prison, Liao continued to write, often about the people from the lowest rungs on the social ladder.

“I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. The so-called elite don’t care for us, but we are the mainstream of society.” He said even after he was released from prison, government officials continued to watch, harass and deny him visas to travel abroad.

Liao Yiwu was in his early 30s when he was arrested for writing and performing a poem about the brutality of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. His poem — simply called “Massacre” — was an angry, howling rant against the government and a plea for support for the fledgling pro-democracy movement.

For his words, Liao served four years in jail, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. Twice he tried to commit suicide. But his life turned around when he met a fellow political prisoner: an 84-year-old monk who showed him that music could be his salvation.

“He told me that you will never have freedom, if you don’t have freedom in your mind. And so he taught me to play the flute,” Liao Yiwu told the PBS NewsHour. A new memoir about his time in prison has just been published by Houghton Mifflin called “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.”

Liao said he felt he had to write the book to make sure the stories were not covered up. “I needed to write it down so I wouldn’t be forgotten like a stray dog,” he said.

Growing up in the Sichuan province during the Cultural Revolution, Liao received little formal education. But he learned traditional Chinese poetry from his father, and found his own way to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He said he was never a political writer or activist, until he saw the events in Tiananmen Square unfold. “It changed my life,” he said. “I felt helpless.”

After writing “Massacre” and surviving prison, Liao continued to write, often about the people from the lowest rungs on the social ladder.

“I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. The so-called elite don’t care for us, but we are the mainstream of society.” He said even after he was released from prison, government officials continued to watch, harass and deny him visas to travel abroad.

His friend, Tienchi Martin-Liao, is the editor of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He says the government felt threatened because of the negative portrayal of Chinese society. “If someone writes fiction or a novel, it’s okay. But he writes in a reportage style. And if people read it, they know it’s the truth. It’s not imagination. So the local authorities don’t like that.”

Two years ago, Liao escaped China and now lives in Germany. But he continues to write and tell his country’s story. “Young people don’t even know what happened in 1989. They first find out when they go abroad to Western countries. But sometimes even then they don’t believe it. The Communist Party has tried to eliminate parts of history. That is bad for the younger generation. If they don’t have this historical consciousness, they will just focus on getting material goods. We have to work on that so everybody knows what happened.”

By Liao Yiwu, Translated by Wenguang Huang
 
(Composed on the morning of June 4, 1989)
Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989
Dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution

  Leap! Howl! Fly! Run!
  Freedom feels so good!
  Snuffing out freedom feels so good!
  Power will be triumphant forever.
  Will be passed down from generation to generation forever.
  Freedom will also come back from the dead.
  It will come back to life in generation after generation.
  Like that dim light just before the dawn.
  No. There’s no light.
  At Utopia’s core there can never be light.
  Our hearts are pitch black.
  Black and scalding.
  Like a corpse incinerator.
  A trace of the phantoms of the burned dead.
  We will exist.
  The government that dominates us will exist.
  Daylight comes quickly.
  It feels so good.
  The butchers are still ranting!
  Children. Children, your bodies all cold.
  Children, your hands grasping stones.
  Let’s go home.
  Brothers and sisters, your shattered bodies littering the earth.
  Let’s go home.
  We walk noiselessly.
  Walk three feet above the ground.
  All the time forward, there must be a place to rest.
  There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot
  be heard.
  We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass.
  A leaf.
  Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy.
  How much farther till we’re home?
  We have no home.
  Everyone knows.
  Chinese people have no home.
  Home is a comforting desire.
  Let us die in this desire.
  OPEN FIRE, BLAST AWAY, FIRE!
  Let us die in freedom.
  Righteousness. Equality. Universal love.
  Peace, in these vague desires.
  Stand on the horizon.
  Attract more of the living to death!
  It rains.
  Don’t know if it is rain or transparent ashes.
  Run quickly, Mummy!
  Run quickly, son!
  Run quickly, elder brother!
  Run quickly, little brother!
  The butchers will not let up.
  An even more terrifying day is approaching.
  OPEN FIRE! BLAST AWAY! FIRE! IT FEELS GOOD! FEELS SO
  GOOD! . . .
  Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry
 
  We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
  We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
  We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
  We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink.
 
  In this historically unprecedented massacre only the spawn of dogs
can survive.

Liao Yiwu

BY NewsHour Poetry Series  July 11, 2013 at 3:41 PM EDT

Liao Yiwu was in his early 30s when he was arrested for writing and performing a poem about the brutality of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. His poem — simply called “Massacre” — was an angry, howling rant against the government and a plea for support for the fledgling pro-democracy movement.

For his words, Liao served four years in jail, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. Twice he tried to commit suicide. But his life turned around when he met a fellow political prisoner: an 84-year-old monk who showed him that music could be his salvation.

“He told me that you will never have freedom, if you don’t have freedom in your mind. And so he taught me to play the flute,” Liao Yiwu told the PBS NewsHour. A new memoir about his time in prison has just been published by Houghton Mifflin called “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.”


Liao said he felt he had to write the book to make sure the stories were not covered up. “I needed to write it down so I wouldn’t be forgotten like a stray dog,” he said.

Growing up in the Sichuan province during the Cultural Revolution, Liao received little formal education. But he learned traditional Chinese poetry from his father, and found his own way to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He said he was never a political writer or activist, until he saw the events in Tiananmen Square unfold. “It changed my life,” he said. “I felt helpless.”

After writing “Massacre” and surviving prison, Liao continued to write, often about the people from the lowest rungs on the social ladder.

“I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. The so-called elite don’t care for us, but we are the mainstream of society.” He said even after he was released from prison, government officials continued to watch, harass and deny him visas to travel abroad.

Liao Yiwu was in his early 30s when he was arrested for writing and performing a poem about the brutality of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. His poem — simply called “Massacre” — was an angry, howling rant against the government and a plea for support for the fledgling pro-democracy movement.

For his words, Liao served four years in jail, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. Twice he tried to commit suicide. But his life turned around when he met a fellow political prisoner: an 84-year-old monk who showed him that music could be his salvation.

“He told me that you will never have freedom, if you don’t have freedom in your mind. And so he taught me to play the flute,” Liao Yiwu told the PBS NewsHour. A new memoir about his time in prison has just been published by Houghton Mifflin called “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.”

Liao said he felt he had to write the book to make sure the stories were not covered up. “I needed to write it down so I wouldn’t be forgotten like a stray dog,” he said.

Growing up in the Sichuan province during the Cultural Revolution, Liao received little formal education. But he learned traditional Chinese poetry from his father, and found his own way to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He said he was never a political writer or activist, until he saw the events in Tiananmen Square unfold. “It changed my life,” he said. “I felt helpless.”

After writing “Massacre” and surviving prison, Liao continued to write, often about the people from the lowest rungs on the social ladder.

“I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. The so-called elite don’t care for us, but we are the mainstream of society.” He said even after he was released from prison, government officials continued to watch, harass and deny him visas to travel abroad.

His friend, Tienchi Martin-Liao, is the editor of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He says the government felt threatened because of the negative portrayal of Chinese society. “If someone writes fiction or a novel, it’s okay. But he writes in a reportage style. And if people read it, they know it’s the truth. It’s not imagination. So the local authorities don’t like that.”

Two years ago, Liao escaped China and now lives in Germany. But he continues to write and tell his country’s story. “Young people don’t even know what happened in 1989. They first find out when they go abroad to Western countries. But sometimes even then they don’t believe it. The Communist Party has tried to eliminate parts of history. That is bad for the younger generation. If they don’t have this historical consciousness, they will just focus on getting material goods. We have to work on that so everybody knows what happened.”

By Liao Yiwu, Translated by Wenguang Huang
 
(Composed on the morning of June 4, 1989)
Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989
Dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution

  Leap! Howl! Fly! Run!
  Freedom feels so good!
  Snuffing out freedom feels so good!
  Power will be triumphant forever.
  Will be passed down from generation to generation forever.
  Freedom will also come back from the dead.
  It will come back to life in generation after generation.
  Like that dim light just before the dawn.
  No. There’s no light.
  At Utopia’s core there can never be light.
  Our hearts are pitch black.
  Black and scalding.
  Like a corpse incinerator.
  A trace of the phantoms of the burned dead.
  We will exist.
  The government that dominates us will exist.
  Daylight comes quickly.
  It feels so good.
  The butchers are still ranting!
  Children. Children, your bodies all cold.
  Children, your hands grasping stones.
  Let’s go home.
  Brothers and sisters, your shattered bodies littering the earth.
  Let’s go home.
  We walk noiselessly.
  Walk three feet above the ground.
  All the time forward, there must be a place to rest.
  There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot
  be heard.
  We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass.
  A leaf.
  Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy.
  How much farther till we’re home?
  We have no home.
  Everyone knows.
  Chinese people have no home.
  Home is a comforting desire.
  Let us die in this desire.
  OPEN FIRE, BLAST AWAY, FIRE!
  Let us die in freedom.
  Righteousness. Equality. Universal love.
  Peace, in these vague desires.
  Stand on the horizon.
  Attract more of the living to death!
  It rains.
  Don’t know if it is rain or transparent ashes.
  Run quickly, Mummy!
  Run quickly, son!
  Run quickly, elder brother!
  Run quickly, little brother!
  The butchers will not let up.
  An even more terrifying day is approaching.
  OPEN FIRE! BLAST AWAY! FIRE! IT FEELS GOOD! FEELS SO
  GOOD! . . .
  Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry
 
  We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
  We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
  We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
  We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink.
 
  In this historically unprecedented massacre only the spawn of dogs
can survive.